EU leaders forced to unite in new Trump reality
By Eszter Zalan
EU leaders pledged the need for unity and for Europe to stand on its own two feet at their meeting in Valletta on Friday (3 February), during a discussion on how to handle US president Donald Trump, whom EU council chief Donald Tusk described earlier this week as a "threat" to the EU.
Leaders emphasised the importance of the transatlantic relationship, and said they would work together with Trump on common interests, but move toward more independent European action on issues where the EU and the US administration disagree.
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"We work on the basis of our shared values, [...] there are areas where we agree, like fighting international terrorism, and where we don’t agree," German chancellor Angela Merkel said after lunch, which summed up the mood toward Trump among EU leaders after a turbulent week of heavy criticism from Europe and concern over the US president's first days in office.
But Merkel said that this is an opportunity for Europe to redefine itself and become more self-reliant.
"The general debate concentrated on where we stand, we have to act together," Merkel said, adding that it could lead to boosting investment in defence capabilities in the EU but also in Germany. "We have our destiny in our own hands."
Some EU leaders heavily criticised Donald Trump's decision to ban refugees and people arriving to the US from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Others, like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, slammed those who criticised Trump. Before arriving at the Valletta summit, Orban said that the US has the right to decide its own border control policy, and that he is puzzled at the "neurotic European reactions" over the travel ban.
But behind closed doors over lunch the leaders were united, sources said.
They listened to the briefing of UK prime minister Theresa May, who has already met Trump, Merkel and French president Francois Hollande, who had phone conversations with the new US president to figure out where he stands.
According to a source, May told her fellow European leaders that she made it clear in Washington that a strong EU, a strong Europe, was good for the US.
May said Trump assured her that he was 100 percent behind Nato, the transatlantic military alliance he publicly called "obsolete".
It also dawned around the table that Trump approaches policy through funding, and while he is committed to Nato, financial contributions to the military alliance and to the United Nations could come under question in Washington.
May cautioned EU leaders, and urged them to engage constructively, as division in transatlantic relations would only embolden those who want to harm Europe.
On whether the UK can act as a bridge between the US and the EU, Tusk said that despite Britain leaving the EU, there was a spirit of solidarity among the 28 member states on Friday.
"[There was] this good and strong will to protect our unique relationship with US, the translatlantic guarantee for freedom and international order," he added.
Leaders however did not get a good sense on where Trump stands on Russia, according to another source.
"Obviously there was concern among EU leaders by some decision taken and some attitudes adopted by the US administration," Joseph Muscat, Malta's prime minister whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said at a press conference on Friday.
He added that there was no anti-American sentiment around the table of EU leaders.
However, there was a determination not to stay silent "when principles are trampled on," he said.
EU council chief Donald Tusk earlier this week in an extraordinary letter to EU leaders called Trump one of the threats facing Europe today.
While the discussion on Trump was more pragmatic than Tusk's emotional letter, the former Polish prime minister received backing from EU leaders.
"They [leaders] called me 'our Donald'," he said, referring to the US president. Muscat even joked that the new EU council building in Brussels should be renamed Tusk Tower, to replicate the Trump Tower in New York.